|Patcharr Rice fields|
Hon. Omar Jallow, affectionately referred to by his initials O.J. is Gambia’s agriculture minister who had previously served in the same position for over a decade during the Jawara administration. He is, therefore, as qualified as any to assess a sector of the country’s economy that is the single largest contributor to GDP and provides employment to 70% of the country’s 2 million inhabitants.
Despite its absolute importance to Gambia’s economic well being, and the former dictator professed commitment to promoting it, the agriculture sector has suffered discernibly in the last two decades.
Faced with steady decline in agricultural production, particularly as it relates to the main cash crop, due to inappropriate policies. Agricultural land has been expropriated from communities by the former dictator in an agrarian with devastating effect that denied access to communal lands across the country, causing disruptions to an otherwise traditional tenure system, negatively impacting production.
Although exogenous factors have contributed to the general decline in agricultural production, the constant human disruptions by the former regime in the name of food self-sufficiency have contributed to the decline. According to the agriculture minister, government is in the process of returning communal land to its rightful owners.
In the last two decades, the role of government has increased in agricultural production while its role in extension services in support of the farmer has declined. with the obliteration of the Extension and Crop Protection Services, leaving the Gambian farmer to his or her own devises. It is encouraging that the agriculture minister recognizes the problem and he’s in the process of restoring these very vital support services to the farming communities.
The Cooperative Societies of farmers that formed the Cooperative Union empowered farmers and gave them ownership, stake and control of a very vital aspect of their lives have been disbanded. Through their societies – owned and operated on behalf of farmers – local farmers were able to channel their agricultural input requirements and ultimate distribution in preparation for the next farming season.
The Cooperative Societies also served as buying points as well as agent for agricultural credit extended to farmers. The reintroduction of cooperative societies will put the farmer back in the driver seat while focusing government’s role more in providing extension/support services. It will also expedite the process of the private investor partnership with local communities to replace government whose energy should refocus on providing extension services to the sector.
For a very long time, lip-service has been paid to agricultural diversification with a disproportionate time focused on a single cash crop. The economic value of clinging on to groundnut at the expense of other economic crops like cotton, sunflower seeds and cashew, is increasingly questionable.
Adding value through processing of our agricultural products has also fallen short, more out of lack of a secure and friendly investment climate under Jammeh, despite several government pronouncements and false starts under Jammeh. The current political environment lends itself to new private investment policy initiatives that will attract serious investors in agri-processing.
The horticultural sub-sector fell victim of the 1994 Jammeh-led coup d’etat with the expulsion of owners of Radville Farms, the leading exporter of vegetable produce to the U.K. market, as well as to Jammeh’s clandestine mining operations and land grabbing binge in the Kombos that saw horticultural land expropriated. Operators of Radville Farms, at the time of being expelled, were employers to 100,000 Gambians. It is gratifying to learn that efforts are underway for the company to resume business in The Gambia.